Thinking About Comps

If you are still in coursework for your PhD, and especially if you are currently reading for your comprehensive or qualifying examinations (“comps”) then the subject of these exams is probably near the top of the list of things about which you are most anxious. Knowing a little more about the exams and what they are for can help ease that anxiety somewhat. In this post I first discuss what the exams are and how they are structured, and then give some suggestions for ways to go about studying for them.

Comps are the final preparatory hurdle to clear in a doctoral program before you advance to candidacy and write and defend your dissertation. They are the official means by which your dissertation commmittee tests your readiness to undertake the work of the dissertation. Primarily, they’re meant to gauge your knowledge base in your chosen subject field(s). The basic question they are supposed to answer is: Do you know enough about this material to be able to teach and write effectively about it?

The structure and procedure of comprehensive examinations differs among institutions and programs, but generally they consist of both written and oral format and span multiple days. In our department, we sit a series of three written exams within a week of one another: the primary field exam, which is five hours long, and then two secondary field exams, which are each three hours long. Each exam includes 4-5 questions, and we must answer three of these for the primary exam and two each on the secondary ones. If we pass these written exams, we then sit a three-hour oral exam in which we field questions about the answers we wrote and often, about the questions to which we did not choose to respond. We are told immediately following the oral exam whether or not we have passed, at which point we fill out the paperwork and advance to candidacy (ABD, or “All But Dissertation” standing). Our dissertation prospectus should be completed within 6 months of this point.

I would like to tell you that this is all mere formality and that “everyone passes comps” but that would be a lie; people do fail these exams, more often than you might think. Failure can stem from a few reasons–perhaps you didn’t understand what the exams were asking of you, or you had serious distractions or a disability that wasn’t accounted for, or you were deathly ill and couldn’t concentrate–but generally, when you fail the exams it boils down to one thing: you weren’t prepared for them. This isn’t to say you didn’t do the reading, but rather, that you didn’t make the mental leap from coursework to independent critical thinking that is required to be successful on the exams.

Here are five things to consider as you prepare for qualifying examinations, with the caveat that these are mostly geared towards people in the Humanities and, in particular, people working in English and reading a lot of fiction and theory; the social science and hard science examinations are very different from ours and students in those areas should be consulting with their advisors and fellow grad students ahed of them in the program on how to prepare.

  1. You should not be studying to be able to conduct plot summaries. These exams are not really meant to test your content knowledge, which is assumed at this stage. They are looking for what you do with the texts, how you use them to think through a particular question or problem. On the exams, you’ll need to give only as much information about the plot of a text as you must to in order to provide context for the argument that you are making. Instead, read for the themes and critical issues that stand out to you.
  2. Using critical theory. If you have criticism on your list, it’s there to be applied to the various other texts and you should be reading with that specific theoretical model or set of models in mind. If you don’t have specific criticism on your list, it’s still a good idea to have a few theoretical approaches you are comfortable with and can use as needed to support your arguments.
  3. But don’t make the mistake of relying on other voices! This exam is not meant to test your knowledge of Foucault and Bourdieu; it is meant to test how you think through critical questions in your chosen field. Drawing from the work of other scholars is fine, and you need to show that you are aware of the critical voices in your field, but you should be relying mainly on your own thinking. Don’t over-cite experts or reference too many other scholars in your answers. Over-reliance on citing other scholars suggests that you don’t have your own thoughts on the matter, or can’t articulate those thoughts in your own words. Reference them in passing support of your claims, rather than spending whole paragraphs outlining their critical lens; if your committee wants more, they’ll ask during orals.
  4. You should absolutely read through a few former tests, preferably tests you know members of your committee have written. These should be on file in the department and readily available to graduate students and if they are not, you should request of the Director of Graduate Studies that an exams file be started. In many cases, your exams will be written specifically for you, based on your lists and what your committee knows you have been working on or wants you to be working on. If your department works this way, and especially in the instance there aren’t former exams available, you should ask students ahead of you in the program who have already taken their exams to share their questions with you. There are a few departments out there that use a standard qualifying exam for everyone, in which case you might not be able to see a former exam (this is more common at the MA level than the PhD level). There should still be sample questions available to you. If there are not, ask your advisor to write a few for you. You have the right to know the kinds of questions you can expect to be asked. Use these as study aids in terms of the structure and time for the exam; outline answers to sample exams, and practice sitting one or two questions with a timer, to determine how much you can reasonably write within a 5-hour or 3-hour period.
  5. Don’t study texts in isolation. You’re not being tested on each text as its own entity. On the exams, you’ll be asked to synthesize your reading, contextualizing your answers with multiple examples drawn from several of the texts on your list. Your studying should prepare you for this kind of work. The best advice I received on this matter came from Thea Thomaini, a teaching professor in Renaissance literature at USC, who told me to make index cards listing the titles and authors and maybe a sentence or two about each text, and then shuffle the cards, lay out five of them, and see how I could connect them in conversation with eachother. I did this both without a specific question in mind, and then asking specific questions, and it prepared me better than anything else I did to be able to synthesize the texts in support of an argument when the exams rolled around.

I’m not going to claim that when my exams rolled around I wasn’t anxious, because that would be a total lie. After so many years of work, the fear of failure and the requisite setback in terms of time to degree is going to be there no matter how prepared you are. But my anxiety turned out to be manageable, and I believe this is because I was able to see the exams for what they were and to prepare for them accordingly. Using the five approaches outlined above made it possible for me to go into the room confident that I knew how to succeed, and once I started each test the world fell away and I really enjoyed composing my answers.

What about you? Got any tips for ways to think productively, rather than anxiously, about comps? Share them in the comments section below!


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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